Earl Swift’s “The Big Roads” is that rare book that can take something you thought you knew so well you hardly thought about it, and bring it to life in ways you never believed imaginable. A difficult feat for anyone, but then, Earl Swift’s not just anyone. A former Fulbright fellow and current residential fellow of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Swift has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize five times for his work for Norfolk’s Virginian-Pilot. He recently took time out from putting the finishing touches on his latest book, Auto-biography, to talk to us about The Big Roads.
One of the most remarkable things to me about the book, and one of the reasons I was most interested to read it, is the simple grandness of the enterprise. The audaciousness of a series of roads that will tie the country together, that will link cities and farms like never before, that will allow average Americans to hit the open road – and that will, in the process, change those cities, the country and the people forever. Doesn’t that sense of bigness feel curiously lacking today? Why? Have we gotten smaller as people or, to paraphrase Norma Desmond, are we still big, but it’s just the dreams that got smaller?
First off, let’s talk about what the interstates didn’t do: They didn’t break new trail, or link pieces of the country that weren’t already connected, or enable anyone who previously couldn’t hit the road to hit the road. They were routed, with rare exception, in the shadow of existing federal highways, and along corridors that had been popular for generations. They were the logical product of a long evolution in road-building—they followed highways that were improved versions of some of the old “auto trails” of the teens and twenties, which were descended from the turnpikes and plank roads of early settlers, which often followed Indian trails, which followed the migration paths of buffalo and elk.
So it’s more accurate to think of them as a refinement of a pre-existing technology, designed to address flaws that had become apparent over the first forty years of automobility. Namely: Cars kept running into each other, into trains, and into pedestrians.
Contrary to popular belief, the interstates were conceived as a way of relieving urban congestion first, and connecting cities second—they weren’t even imagined as superhighways, necessarily, out in the sticks. So the idea was perhaps not quite so big, in its original form, as it might seem today.
As for the real meat of your question: We haven’t had a domestic building project as big as the interstates, but then, we haven’t needed one. But that’ll change: Climate change will require an investment of money and political will that’ll dwarf the comparatively straightforward task of building a bunch of roads.
As someone who has spent a good deal of time in Baltimore, I personally found the last part of the book, “The Human Obstacle”, particularly interesting. That said, while it is fascinating and as well-written as the rest of the book, it feels curiously like it’s from a different work. Whereas the rest of the book is driven by chronology and the sweep of building roads across the entire nation, this intense focus on the challenges of one particular city, of the players, of the plans, of the neighborhoods, of the failures and successes, has a very different feel to it. So why? Why zoom in on Baltimore? Why not simply continue the chronology and story of the previous sections?
I realized from the start that I couldn’t build a narrative out of an inanimate object, even if that object was 47,000 miles long and snaked into every corner of the country; I had to find human characters to drive the book. I spent close to two years in research before I settled on five—Carl Fisher, who beat the drum for high-speed roads early in the century, organized the first interstate motor road, and inspired the first primitive interstate network; Thomas MacDonald, who turned that messy, anarchic grid into a rational system of numbered U.S. highways, and oversaw the research that spawned the interstates; Frank Turner, MacDonald’s protégé, who translated his boss’s vision into concrete and steel through the fifties and sixties; Lewis Mumford, who early in his career advocated limited-access highways, and later morphed into their harshest critic, and influenced what we got in both roles; and Joe Wiles, who represents the tens of thousands of Americans who resisted the interstates when they were rammed through U.S. cities.
You can’t tell the story of superhighways without devoting significant attention to the resistance, because it shaped the resulting network. But the challenge in portraying it is that it wasn’t national in character—it took the form of dozens of local battles, each with its own idiosyncrasies and homespun flavor. My choice, as narrator, was (a), build an account of all this unconnected tussling (which would have involved a huge and impossible-to-follow cast); or (b), pick a city and a single character that represented the whole, and use them to discuss what was happening elsewhere.
Obviously, I chose the latter. That decided, Baltimore was an easy pick. It was hometown to Herbert Fairbank, the author of Toll Roads and Free Roads, the 1939 government report that amounted to a rough blueprint of the interstates. It was used in that document as an example of a city facing a host of urban woes that could be erased with expressways—dying downtowns, blighted neighborhoods, stultifying traffic—and was thus the first interstate city, in a sense. And of course the battle there raged longer than freeway fights just about anywhere else, which was a bonus.
So if the back end of the book feels different to you, I suspect you hit on why when you point out that the focus is local. It might also be due to the bricks-and-mortar nature of the fight, versus the largely abstract business of conception and design that comes before. I’m just guessing here, because in truth I didn’t change my narrative strategy at all: The action is chronological, the story continues from the previous sections—the book’s structural scaffolding is constant throughout.
In ancient days, we were told to study history in order to learn from and thus better emulate the greatness of the past. But frankly, I read history more often to remind myself that no matter how stupid, clumsy, ignorant, petty and petulant politics, business and people are today, they’ve been at least as bad in the past. And yet, as much as I read, I am always surprised. And for the reader of The Big Roads, there are surprises galore. Unfamiliar names, debunked mythologies, political shenanigans, nefarious dealings. But what about the story surprised you the most when writing it? As a journalist I’m sure you’ve seen quite a bit that has made you jaded, but what made you sit up and say “You have GOT to be kidding…”?
I went into the story believing that the system was a product of the fifties, and that Dwight Eisenhower spurred the country to build them—the standard narrative that’s repeated by TV journalists and politicians every time they talk about infrastructure. It came as quite a surprise to find that they’re really decades older, and that Ike’s role in their creation didn’t amount to much. The flip side of that discovery was learning that the man who was really most responsible for the interstates—and really, for modern highways of all types—was a bald, portly Iowan who most people have never heard of.
A lot of the students I teach marketing to the past few years have been from China, and one of the things they find absolutely mind-boggling is that we have this tremendous infrastructure that we are just letting go completely to hell. Bridges collapsing, roads that are almost impassible, tunnels that are leaking. And that doesn’t even mention the fact that population shifts, both geographic and demographic, have reduced the need for highways in some areas and increased the needs elsewhere. So with all that as a background, what do you think the future of the big roads look like?
It isn’t quite that bad yet. Bridges are not collapsing—the I-35 bridge failure in Minneapolis was a design issue, not one of maintenance. None of our interstates are “nearly impassable.” Still, we’re not in terrific shape. The interstates are state roads, and the money spent to keep them in repair—and thus their condition—varies from state to state. And no question, some have been unable or unwilling to pony up enough money to counter the effects of time, heavy use and the elements.
In some cases, maintenance has been deferred for so long that simple repair jobs have mushroomed into complex and insanely expensive rebuilds—witness what happened with I-95 in Philadelphia a few years ago, when the pylons supporting the freeway were found to be crumbling. There was no collapse, but the fix was complicated and disruptive.
Bridges are a particularly knotty problem. The system has more than 55,000 of them. Generally speaking, they have a fifty-year “use by” date, and most are at or nearing that point—so even if they’re well maintained, they’re old, and eventually that becomes an issue.
One of the issues we face in financing the work necessary to maintain this behemoth is that we haven’t raised the federal gas tax, which feeds highway work, in 21 years. So the first, short-term step in addressing this problem is to suck it up and raise the tax, which now stands at 18.4 cents a gallon. The second step is longer term, and that’s to recognize that our Eisenhower-era revenue formulas no longer work: Because we drive less than we did a few years ago, and in cars that get far better gas mileage than those of the fifties, taxing fuel doesn’t generate the income it used to; we need to come up with a new way to tax motorists for the actual miles they drive, rather than the gas they burn.
You can read our review of Earl’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here). Or you can reach out directly to Earl here.
Illustration of Earl Swift by the brilliant Mike Caplanis